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What Is Screen Reader Testing for Web Accessibility?

Posted August 03, 2022


Posted August 03, 2022

A screen reader being used to test a website for alternative text
A screen reader being used to test a website for alternative text

To build an accessible website, you’ll need to test your content for screen reader compatibility. Here’s an overview of the best practices.

Testing your content for screen reader compatibility is an important part of providing an accessible experience for all users and complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Screen readers are specialized computer software that convert text displayed on a computer into a usable format for those who cannot read it. They work in one of two ways:

  • Text-to-speech, where the words are read directly to the user.
  • Braille display, where the user can read the output through a tactile pad that translates the words into Braille.

Using a free screen reader to access your website is the simplest way to test if your content is compatible with screen readers. However, this approach isn’t without some risk. People who don’t have much experience with screen readers can miss important accessibility barriers — or find “issues” that aren’t actually problems for users.

Below, we explain the basics of how popular screen readers work and share key considerations for screen reader accessibility testing.

To uncover low-hanging fruit before more rigorous manual testing, run an automated accessibility audit on your website.

Chart that says 1 million people in the U.S. are legally blind and this number is expected to increase by 21% each decade.

Why Screen Reader Testing is Important for Accessibility

Let’s start by answering an obvious question: Who uses screen readers, and why?

There’s no quick answer, but it’s important to know that screen readers aren’t simply a “different type of web browser.” They’re tools for accessing all types of digital content, including offline documents and applications.

Today, many individuals with vision disabilities use screen readers as a primary tool for reading, navigating, and interacting with content. An estimated 1 million people in the United States are legally blind — and that number is expected to increase by 21% each decade. While not all of those people use screen readers, many do.

Screen readers aren’t just for people with vision conditions, either. Each year, WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind) conducts a demographic survey of screen reader users. In 2021, 7.7% of respondents said they do not use a screen reader due to a specific disability.

There’s also a legal component to making sure your website works for all users, whether they’re using screen readers or other assistive technologies. Some of the most important ADA web accessibility lawsuits have involved plaintiffs who use screen readers, including Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC.

What Are the Most Popular Screen Readers?

Because screen readers are powerful assistive tools, they vary greatly in their features, capabilities, and customizability. A website may work well when accessed with one screen reader within a certain browser, but it may have serious usability issues when accessed with another application.

For screen reader testing, you’ll want to audit your content with one or more of the most popular screen reader applications. In WebAIM’s 2021 survey, these were the most popular:

  • Freedom Scientific JAWS (Jobs Access With Speech) - A Windows screen reader that supports web browsers and most other applications. A home license for JAWS costs $95 per year as of August 2022.
  • NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) - A free, open-source screen reader created by NV Access, a registered charity and software development company.
  • Apple VoiceOver - Available for free on iOS and Mac OS devices. 
  • Freedom Scientific ZoomText/Fusion - A screen reader based on JAWS with screen magnification and visual enhancement features.

Less popular screen readers included Windows Narrator and Google’s ChromeVox.

So, how can you make sure that your website works predictably on as many screen readers as possible? You’ll need to follow established guidelines for digital accessibility — and fortunately, that’s an achievable goal.

Using WCAG to Look for Accessibility Issues

Published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are the most widely used standards for digital accessibility.

WCAG contains numerous guidelines for creating content that works predictably for screen readers and other assistive technologies. If your website follows the latest version of WCAG (currently, WCAG 2.1), you should be in good shape.

Screen reader testing can help you identify some of the most frustrating accessibility barriers, including:

Many accessibility experts recommend using a combination of automated and manual tests to ensure conformance with WCAG and, in turn, compliance with the ADA. Manual testing often means screen reader testing, performed by people who use screen readers in their daily lives or have substantial experience with JAWS, NVDA, and other common software.

Can I Perform Screen Reading Testing On My Own?

While you can download a screen reader and use it to test your content, it’s important to understand that your experience will be limited.

Using a screen reader is an acquired skill. Consider this: If you’d never used a mouse or keyboard, you’d need some time to understand how to use those tools effectively.

Experienced screen reader users know how to use keyboard shortcuts to scan website content, fill in forms, and perform other common tasks. If you’re testing your content without those skills, you might mistakenly believe that your website has dozens of serious accessibility problems. Likewise, you might ignore issues that an experienced user would immediately notice.

With that said, web developers can gain valuable perspective by performing self tests. Listening to your content may help you understand the importance of image alternative tags (also called alt tags), accurate subheadings, and other basic features of an accessible website.

Stylized webpage that shows the AudioEye icon and a number of screen reader accessibility errors

Test Your Content for Screen Reader Accessibility with AudioEye 

Many issues that affect screen readers can be detected through automated audits. AudioEye’s platform runs over 400 tests to find accessibility errors, then fixes most of them automatically.

However, some issues require human guidance for remediation. For example, automated tools can tell you whether your website contains alt tags for images, but cannot determine whether the text is descriptive.

To help address these issues, AudioEye offers user testing by people who use screen readers on a daily basis and access to certified experts, who can provide routine manual remediations and guidance.

If you’re ready to test your content for screen reader accessibility, we’re ready to help. Download our white paper to learn more AudioEye's approach to digital accessibility or get started with a free trial today.

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